I killed Adolf Hitler (Jason, 2007)

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I killed Adolf Hitler, by John Arne Sæterøy “Jason” (2007).

Score: All’s well that ends with time travel.

In a grim alternate reality where murder is legal, the unnamed protagonist of I killed Adolf Hitler is approached by a scientist who has built a time machine to task him with murdering the Führer before he rises to power. Unfortunately, Hitler survives and manages to steal the machine and travel forward to the present time. The protagonist then embarks on a quest to find Hitler and finish the job, with the help of his also unnamed ex-girlfriend.

I killed Adolf Hitler is fifty-odd pages long and has very succint dialogue. Every character is an anthropomorphic animal, which creates a greatly alienated environment but at the same time it’s surprising how expressive these creatures are. In the end, finding and killing Adolf Hitler is the least important thing in the plot: panel after panel you see the characters waiting, growing up, breathing, learning. Doing what they can to survive in a bleak world and trying to make it a better one. Realizing that things were not as bad as they seemed, if only they had seized the moment.

Highly recommended.

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (Boris Vian, 1946)

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J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, by Boris Vian (a.k.a. I spit on your graves, 1946).

Score: unsettling.

This essay was written in the context of MUEC with the assistance of Professor Cora Requena.

They say good literature cannot leave the reader indifferent. Something must break, turn or bloom in you after you read a good book. It is also generally considerered that noir fiction, like other popular genres, never sets out to do that.

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes is told, masterfully, from the perspective of Lee Anderson, a man who arrives at a small town in the South of the United States with the clear purpose of exacting revenge for something done in the past to a certain kid… Lee starts hanging out with the local teenagers, attending wild parties and going on sex and alcohol binges with them. His final targets seem to be two sisters, Lou and Jean.

Vian maintains tension and suspense over Lee’s true identity and purpose for eight out of the twenty-four chapters of the book, while narrating in first person and leaving plenty of hints. The book is also sexually explicit and bloody violent, but never gratuitously. It has a deep will of social commentary about a topic so sordid it cannot be portrayed without explicit and brutal violence.

A classic of roman noir, this can be read and enjoyed by anyone who is seeking groundbreaking good literature.

***SPOILERS***

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Going Postal (Terry Pratchett, 2004)

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Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett (2004).

Score: contastic!

Moist von Lipwig, conman extraordinaire, has pulled the glass ring swindle for the last time: his alter ego Albert Spangler gets hung in the town square in Ankh-Morpork. But Moist is secretly saved by Lord Vetinari, who makes a point that he’s Moist’s saviour angel and tasks him with getting the old Post Office up and running. It’s not like Moist has much of a choice; Pump the golem is assigned as his parole officer and no matter how fast your horse is, golems need no sleep. The Post Office is literally stuffed with undelivered mail and the only two remaining civil servants are Tolliver Groat, an old man who only trusts all-natural remedies such as sulphur, saltpetre and dead voles and doesn’t believe in bathing, and Stanley Howler, who might have lost his grip on his passion for collecting pins.

The thirty-third Discworld novel, Going Postal is much closer to the satirical pole than other of the novels from this series I have read. It’s not so much about silly situations and having a witty narrator, but much more about social satire targeting bureaucracy, corporate takeovers, workplace exploitation, and, to a lesser degree, collectors, hackers and charlatans. Some people make it look like if you like one Discworld novel, you’re going to like them all, but I’ve found them to be quite different from one another, and I have only read a few. So it’s a good idea to do some reading around if you’re new to the series.

Though it’s not meant to be a purely funny book, it’s quite enjoyable. Moist, a completely new character at this point, is quite interesting for his inventiveness and boldness, and the plot stays fresh and interesting, though the first act is maybe a bit too long and it takes some time to get immersed.

To wrap it up, recommended.

The road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)

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The road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006).

Score: interesting.

The road is a minimalistic novel that follows the misadventures of an unnamed father and his son in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is built as a series of vignettes that focus on the man’s scavenge for canned goods, trying to normalize his son’s childhood and hiding from cannibalistic slavers and death cults.

The damn thing is depressing as hell. Even being used to post-apocalyptic stories, this one is especially pessimistic. The only people that the father and son come across are bandits, cannibals or wretches they can’t share any of their goods with because they risk starving themselves. At the same time, this book was hugely influential this past decade so I felt I was a bit late to the show. This has been done to death and sometimes in a more elaborate and innovative ways, from The walking dead to The last of us. So the book feels a bit dated, though it has great historical value.

In literary terms, the book is quite well written, with beige prose and clever dialogue. But as someone who is fighting the notion that genre literature is inherently worse than high-end literature (whatever that means), there is something not quite right about the plot. You can tell this wasn’t written by a genre author because it lacks certain attention to detail in worldbuilding that a speculative fiction author wouldn’t have overlooked. Let me elaborate.

***SPOILERS***

The man and the boy have been scavengers for as long as the kid has been alive, which might be anywhere between five and ten years. In the whole book they don’t hunt anything, gather but a few mushrooms and basically live off canned foods. I did some research and even though shelf life is officially two or three years, four or five-decade-old canned goods will still be edible, even though texture and taste will have deteriorated. We’re on the same page for now.

Cannibals and death cults are basically the only thing the man and boy find. Such would definitely exist in such a scenario. But where are the good people? Are we to believe the only two decent people in the world are these two? That the rest have been enslaved or are too scared to do anything constructive? If I recall correctly, there are two mentions of communes. Why doesn’t the father make an effort to try to get into one? He needs all the help he can get and he knows his way around, it would be a match made in heaven. I have a pet theory: the guy craves moral control over his son. He keeps telling the boy that they’re the good guys and they help people and such but being in contact with other people would show the kid how much of a coward his father is. Like, the little guy starts suspecting without ever speaking to anyone else.

On the other hand, it’s implied that nothing at all is alive except for humans and I find that really hard to swallow. Humans are not particularly resilient. If humans have managed not to die, there must be grass, rodents, cockroaches, something. I mean, once they live off old apples for a few days. Either apple trees are still alive and kicking or they managed to eat five-year-old apples that hadn’t rotten. A commune not only could be farming, but it would be the sanest thing to do. If no animals or plants are left whatsoever, there’s no fucking way these guys have survived for almost a decade, even on canned potatoes. It’s not even implied what happened is nuclear fallout, and even massive albedo would not have killed everything except for humans (how convenient) Also, I find it implausible that they always manage to find old cans within a few miles of where they are. It all makes the theory that all of them are in purgatory and the kid is actually an angel almost believable.

So, it is one of two things: either the author didn’t think it through, or all I’ve said is actually implied in the book. There are farms and decent people and viable communes and the guy is just a human turd who has made his son’s childhood living hell. Who knows.

That being said, the dynamic between father and son is quite well-achieved. The kid changes as time goes by and starts challenging his father in many ways; mostly he’s pissed that they never cooperate or help anyone but still call themselves the good guys. The father might seem a decent guy at the beginning, but his pathological mistrust is actually making things worse for both of them (except that time when they decide it’s a good idea to fire a flare gun. Like, wow. You spend a whole day covering your tracks because someone might have seen you briefly among the trees but why not shoot a flare gun, whose only purpose is to tell people where you are. Amazing).

The fact that the kid is found by a decent family right after the father’s death might look whimsical but it’s actually cleverly justified. When they leave the underground shelter, the kid insists that he has seen a child and a dog. The father waves it off as a delusion because who would keep a dog and a kid instead of eating them. Everyone’s a bastard except for me and my son, right? So this family starts following them because the father is too narrow-minded to believe his son and start covering their tracks. The family knows they’re peaceful because they leave a ton of food and supplies behind in the shelter, so they start following. Also, probably the kid saw the other kid and the parents believed it.

Death’s end (Liu Cixin, 2010)

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Death’s end, by Liu Cixin (2010).

Score: a masterpiece.

The last installment of Remembrance of Earth’s past trilogy after The three-body problem and The dark forest, Death’s end wraps up the story with a pirouette and a confident smile. It’s huge, it’s intelligent, tragic and amazingly vast. Each novel is better than the previous one and this one has managed to become my favourite science-fiction novel of all time, as of today.

***SPOILERS FOR THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM AND THE DARK FOREST***

Death’s end goes back to the beginning of the Crisis Era. While the Wallfacer Project is being developed and made public, young rocket scientist Cheng Xin joins the Staircase Program, which seeks to gather intelligence about Trisolaris by sending a probe to meet the vanguard of the Trisolaran Fleet. Later, after the Doomsday Battle, Luo Ji is established as the Swordholder, a person who holds the control of the gravitational wave antennae and is tasked with exposing the location of Trisolaris if dark forest deterrance is compromised.

Like The dark forest, Death’s end is heavy with grand strategy themes and slowly evolves from a first contact story to a space opera and finally to a cosmic horror work. An in-universe document called A past outside of time is used to summarize and explain big social and intellectual upheavals that would be too awkward for a character to narrate to another in dialogue. Once again, the masses, society, large quantities of people with their culture and outlook on life play a central role. It’s a long book and many things happen in it. While the pacing is generally slow but suitable, I personally didn’t enjoy the stalling in the last third after the climactic moment that ends the second third.

Liu shows the greatest extent of his scientific knowledge and imagination and it’s quite impressive. He enjoys his descriptions of the technologies he has dreamed up and makes sure to flesh them out even if the stakes are high in the plot. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read a science-fiction book where literary analysis plays a major role in the plot and I love it.

***SPOILERS FOR DEATH’S END***

 

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“After the ball”, by Lev Tolstoi (1903)

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Analysis: “After the ball”, by Lev Tolstoi (1903).

This short essay was written in the context of MUEC and with the assistance of Professor José Manuel Mora-Fandos.

“After the ball” is a short story in which Ivan Vasilevich tells the story of his failed love story with Varenka B., which he claims proves that circumstances are more important than upbringing. The story is divided in two halves, one that explains what happens in the ball (preceded by a short section set in the present that frames the story) and another that explains what happens after the ball. which is shorter but more important.

At the beginning of the story, we are told that Ivan didn’t marry Varenka in the end, which makes us expect that this will be the story of how she breaks his heart. We also expect that it will explain precisely why circumstances are more important than upbringing.

The story is very rich in adjectives and adverbs, which serve the purpose of making us feel precisely what Ivan feels. He makes picturesque descriptions of the hosts, the ball and the other guests. He also describes the kind of music the orchestra plays, the clothes Varenka wears and his mood as happy, satisfied, grateful, tender, only capable of good. Here we must pay attention at the symbolism posed by gloves: the ones Varenka wears, the ones Ivan wears and the ones the colonel wears. When Varenka dances with her father, he’s described in very endearing terms: tall and handsome, with blush cheeks and combed-forward sideburns. He dances clumsily and with energy, and that only makes Ivan admire him more. Ivan even supposes that the reason the colonel is wearing such old boots is so he can pay for his daughter to have an active social life, but we have no further proof of that.

Varenka gives Ivan a feather from her fan as a present, which he keeps inside his glove: why there instead of a pocket or satchel? Later on, Ivan keeps one of Varenka’s gloves along with the feather, which at that time was a symbol of commitment. Why does Ivan not try to get engaged with Varenka, or at least try to get closer to her father while in the ball? Bearing in mind what happens later, that might be another link in the chain of coincidences that change Ivan’s life.

There are two mild instances of foreshadowing almost at the exact middle of the story: Varenka’s father has to leave because he must get up early the following morning and Ivan mentions the only thing he fears is something that spoils his happiness.

Ivan is so excited he can’t sleep, so he goes for a walk in the early morning. The descriptions in this segment are so plastic and colourful there is no doubt Tolstoi is a master of style. Every adjective choice might seem obvious, but at the same time it’s spot-on. Soon there is a change in tone: there is music in the street, and it is morbid and ominous, as opposed to the happy, festive music that was played at the ball. Ivan witnesses the colonel leading the running of a gauntlet to a Tartar that deserted. We could expect that Ivan’s description of the cruel event is as colourful as his depiction of the ball, but it is objective and succinct. The reason this works is because when one is in love one is eloquent and enthusiastic, but when one is horrified they don’t feel like speaking that much. If he were as talkative as before, it wouldn’t feel as appropriate.

The colonel is described in the same terms as before, but everything about him has changed. He’s wearing the same kind of kid gloves as Varenka in the ball. Ivan says he feels ashamed as if he had done something execrable. He’s telling his story in the present and by the way he tells it we know that he hasn’t, but the colonel did something reprehensible instead. But back then, Ivan can’t cope with the fact that he has seen a person he admired doing something so horrible, so he feels guilt instead. Ivan describes feeling nauseous and physically ill as a consequence. The effect is even stronger because the was blissful a few pages before.

Ivan tries to find a justification for what he has seen. Interestingly, he does not appeal to morality (”he did what was his duty”) or politics (”he did it to protect us from our enemies”) but to reason: “he must know something that I do not”. But Ivan is an older, wiser man now, and he doesn’t right away tell us that he despises the colonel’s cruelty, but he simply says that the witnessing of these events convinced him that he couldn’t become a soldier or a politician. The other people at the gathering mock him for being useless as a citizen, revealing they haven’t understood Ivan’s concerns.

Tolstoi hides the main motif of the story near the end of the story and makes it look like it’s unimportant. Ivan has revealed that circumstances are more important than upbringing because it was just a coincidence that caused him not to marry Varenka and not to become a soldier, while all of his upbringing had worked towards those goals. But more importantly, Tolstoi has spoken about how the real monsters might be your friends, family and neighbours. Monsters are not always cruel, but they’re all the more scary because they are capable of love and affection. Ivan renounced a woman he loved and a career he coveted out of fear to become such a monster. And from the way he speaks in the present, he’s proud of the decision he made.

Last but not least, intertextuality enriches the text: Tolstoi decides to set the story on the last day of Carnival, therefore the following morning is the first morning of Lent. The flogging of the tartar is reminiscent of the Passion, where he addresses the onlookers as brothers, as well as other Biblical references.

The dark forest (Liu Cixin, 2008)

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The dark forest, by Liu Cixin (2008).

Score: outstanding.

The second novel in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy after The three-body problem, The dark forest is a risky bet that Liu took on and won. Compared to its predecessor, The dark forest takes its sweet time to develop: some characters that are presented from the beginning only become important in the final third of the novel. The first two-thirds are set-up for the glorious last third and the reward for your patience is worth it. You’ll do well to trust Liu because everything he does in the novel he does for a reason.

***SPOILERS FOR THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM***

It is already clear that Trisolaris has launched an invasion of Earth that will arrive in over four centuries, and humanity needs to prepare for war. Intelligence gathered from the ETO has also revealed that Trisolarans are a telepathic species and therefore ignore the difference between thinking and saying, missing on the whole world of lying, scheming and deceiving. This prompts the international community to create the Wallfacer Project: four people are chosen to each devise a plan against Trisolaris but that plan cannot leave their respective minds, so the sophons won’t be able to figure it out. The Wallfacers are British neuroscientist Bill Hines, former US Secretary of Defense Frederick Tyler, former Venezuelan President Rey Díaz and Chinese astronomer Luo Ji. ETO launches the Wallbreaker Project: three ETO members will monitor the first three Wallfacers to crack their strategy. Luo Ji is thoroughly uninterested in the project and decides to spend the budget he’s assigned on a mansion in the woods, so the ETO ignores him.

The dark forest has traits of First Contact, alien invasion, military sci-fi, high strategy, space opera, low-speed interstellar travel and futurism tropes and they’re all finely tuned. Liu sets a very high bar for himself and is up to the challenge. He has thought of every detail thoroughly and built his characters with great care. Changes of mood and tone between the second and third parts are spot on in the sense that they lull you into false confidence and then you don’t know what hit you. The timeline is really clever and so is the way it is revealed to the reader.

It does have some flaws: it’s overpopulated with middle-aged male scientists with a military background. So much so, it’s easy to get them mixed up. It can get so slow and tedious at times it is at great risk of losing the reader so they won’t reach the awesome climax. I’m not sure whether Luo Ji’s love story with an imaginary woman makes any sense and/or is relevant to the story but there it is.

I’m so damn hyped at this trilogy. The moment I finished this I bought Death’s end and started it even though I’m supposed to be reading The sound and the fury for one of my classes. Don’t let your friends tell you all about it and dive into these great novels now!

Extra: Waterdrop, a tribute short movie produced by Wang Ren.

The three-body problem (Liu Cixin, 2008)

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The three-body problem, by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu, 2008).

Score: awesome.

The book opens in Cultural Revolution China, where young physicist Ye Wenjie witnesses her father’s death during a public struggling session, after her mother and sister joined the Red Guard. Marked as a subversive element, Ye agrees to spend her life in a military research facility as a scientist. In the present, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is asked to infiltrate a shady organization called Frontiers of Science because a lot of scientists have been quitting their research and committing suicide lately. In the process, Wang starts playing a VR video game about a world where day and night cycles and therefore climate is chaotic except during brief periods called Stable Eras. The goal of the game is to explain and predict Stable Eras in order to save the civilization that lives there.

I really enjoyed reading a science-fiction book set in another culture. Liu’s assimilation of science-fiction tropes and transplanting into his own upbringing in order to tell a compelling and new story was very interesting to read. I hope to read many more books like this in the future and learn about other cultures and other countries’ history.

It’s not a very long book and the pacing is nearly perfect. Chapters set in different periods and contexts follow one another seamlessly and the action almost never stops. The first section provides historical and cultural context to the characters, and the mysteries start almost immediately in the second section, leading us to their progressive unraveling and final setup for the rest of the trilogy. Liu even adds chapters with different formats, such as written reports, interrogations and memories told in the first person. Some of these are awkward when introduced but work well in general.

The chapters with the Three Body video game were very exciting. I wanted to play a video game like that one! The recurring annihilation in freaky astronomical events was hilarious, like a particularly cruel game of Banished. Okay, I have a weird sense of humour. These chapters kept me interested and up reading until very late at night, definitely a highlight of the book.

The planetary scale of the conspiracy and unexplained events reminded me a lot of Spin, though luckily the characters in The three-body problem were not irredeemably stupid and insufferable like the main characters of Spin. In fact, the bad guys in this book are quite well achieved. They are given motives to be evil, as well as flaws and doubts. Hell, they even sound reasonable sometimes.

The style is quite sober, though I’m guessing that is because the translation from Chinese makes a lot of nuances and quirks of language disappear. Ken Liu speaks in his postscript of trying to strike a balance between translating faithfully, adapting culturally and not adding too many footnotes. The result is pleasant to read, but since I don’t speak Chinese I cannot assess his effort further.

This book falls on the quite hard side of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness. I don’t know enough advanced physics to justify whether what Liu lays out as an explanation for the events of the book makes a lot of sense or not, but for someone with a very basic understanding of quantum physics the result seems truthlike. Willing suspension of disbelief is not broken.

This book is entertaining, exciting and cleverly written, so I recommend it to all of you who like science-fiction.

The shadow of the torturer (Gene Wolfe, 1980)

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The shadow of the torturer, by Gene Wolfe (1980).

Score: still trying to figure out the point.

See, I was very hyped about this book. I had read that it was complicated, subtle, explained very little and at the same time inspired a lot of theories and interpretations, and all of those were selling points for me. But for some reason I just couldn’t get submerged in it.

The shadow of the torturer tells the story of Severian, an apprentice since childhood of the Guild of Torturers. He lives in a feudal society that is quite obviously implied to be a Dark Era after a Space Age gone wrong. One night, he saves a nobleman from death while the nobleman and some others are in the middle of grave-robbing and as a prize he’s given a gold coin. Severian grows up, teaches the younger apprentices, becomes a journeyman, never leaves the small precinct where his Guild dwells. Falls in love with a noble prisoner, does something very wrong and gets expelled from the guild.

***Mild spoilers from here on*** Up to here it more or less made sense. The learning curve is quite steep and it’s already clear that something similar to magic must be going on somewhere but we’re good. Then Severian comes across two charlatans and looks like he’s going to join them but doesn’t, so he goes to buy a cloak. He’s there buying the cloak and minding his own business when he gets challenged to a duel to the death for no apparent reason. Like us, he has never heard of such a thing but he’s not surprised or anything. He leaves the shop with the shopkeeper’s sister and they go to the botanic gardens because apparently you need a weird flower to go to this duel. Severian and the shopkeeper’s sister fondle each other on the way to the gardens despite having known each other for about five minutes and crash into a temple when racing another cart to the gardens. Something’s fishy with the gardens because lots of weird things happen there that I can’t begin to relate to the rest of the story, including Severian telling a story about a friend of a friend who got lost in her own neighbourhood and there was a guy bouncing photons between two mirrors. When they fished a strange woman from a formaldehyde pond I decided I had completely lost interest in what would happen next.

It’s not that it’s badly written. It’s just that I couldn’t figure where the story was going so I stopped caring about what happened to the characters. It’s been said that Wolfe deconstructs the hero’s journey and maybe that expectation was detrimental to my reading, because as much as I looked I couldn’t find it anywhere. There’s a continuous feeling of “okay, but why do I need to know this?” that makes the reading increasingly annoying. I suspect it gets better if you keep reading and if you look at the Book of the New Sun as a whole, but it just couldn’t retain my interest. Or maybe if I did read the whole of it I could find that behind all the barely explained lore and events there is nothing that interests me after all. It’s like Wolfe took the iceberg writing technique too far and what you’re left with is a tiny, very boring visible part of the ice giant.

Nevertheless, it’s an acclaimed classic. I’ll be happy if any of you enjoys it more than I did.

Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett, 1989)

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Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett (1989).

Score: side-splitting.

For the last decade I’ve been told many times that I should read Discworld novels because they’re incredibly witty, funny and in general the greatest thing since bread came sliced. I picked up The colour of magic in part because there were selling it at the newsagent’s as part of one of those periodical collections and why not. Sort of enjoyed it but every other Terry Pratchett book I had picked up afterwards with the sole exception of Small Gods didn’t do the trick for me.

They had told me they were hilarious! But I was already thirty pages in and I wasn’t laughing, and the story wasn’t that great either. Now I feel there were several reasons that this was happening. One was that I was in a specially pretentious phase of my life and fun adventures were not what I wanted to devote my reading time to. Another was that either I was reading translations or trying to read the original but didn’t have enough English vocabulary to understand it.

The third reason dawned on me when I came across this post by Tumblr user blackboard-monitor. I had tried to start with The colour or magicThe light fantastic, Sourcery, Equal Rites and Mort, none of them generally regarded as a good entry point to Discworld. So I decided to follow her advice and pick up Guards! Guards!. And now it all makes sense.

Guards! Guards! tells the story of Sam Vimes, alcoholic, loser and captain of the (plumeless) Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The other two members of the Watch, Sergeant Colon and Nobby, were perfectly happy trying random house doors to make sure they were locked and not running too fast after criminals lest they catch them, while Vimes drank himself senseless, when they got an unexpected volunteer. Carrot Ironfundersson was raised by dwarfs but maybe he’s not one himself seeing that he’s six feet six. Carrot is also inconveniently fond and knowledgeable of rules and laws, and that might be just as well when Ankh-Morpork is attacked by a dragon summoned by the secret brotherhood The Elucidated Brethren in order to overthrow Lord Vetinari the Patrician.

Guards! Guards! is quite funnier than any of the other Discworld novels I’ve read except for Small Gods and I agree in recommending it as an entry point. Most of the funny moments come from the comments, eccentric descriptions and hyperboles on the part of the narrator, though the dialogue and story don’t stay behind. In this novel, the parody focuses on noir and detective stories as well as dragon-related folklore. Also there was a source of laughter I wasn’t expecting and that is Lady Ramkin. Though apparently she’s parodying high-class horse breeders, my family bred cats for over a decade and cat breeders are exactly the same. I was amazed at how accurate Pratchett’s portrayal of that world is, including Lady Ramkin herself.

If you don’t appreciate “genre literature” you’re probably not going to like any of Discworld, though you’ll have a hard time denying Terry Pratchett was an incredibly cultivated man. If you’re all for fantasy and folklore and not sure where to start with Discworld, this is an excellent choice. Also, try to read the English original if you think you can handle it because there is so much wordplay and untranslatable puns that even a great translation will not do it justice.